Fork in the Road

New Orleans’ Italian: All in the Famiglia

At Rocky & Carlo’s, Louisiana history comes with a side of smothered macaroni

Photo: Chris Granger

Baked macaroni with gravy.

For those of us who were not blessed to be born in southern Louisiana, a proper education in the gastronomic pleasures of New Orleans requires a four-step process. Command of the French Quarter comes first, and with it an appreciation for olive-oil–soaked muffulettas, purchased from Central Grocery and eaten on the levee bank while tugboats churn the brown Mississippi River muck. Next, the Garden District and Uptown loom, with promises of oyster loaves at Casamento’s, pepper-jelly-gilded duck étouffée at Upperline, and jiggly pecan pie at Brigtsen’s.

Knowledge of the city’s various neighborhoods serves as a sort of finishing school. If you want to eat like a local, you need to know Gentilly, where Zimmer’s Seafood offers turkey necks to gnaw while awaiting your overdressed shrimp po’boy.

Advanced study requires travel beyond the Orleans Parish border to Chalmette—a working-class enclave twenty minutes east of the city—and to Rocky & Carlo’s, a beige brick bunker fronted by picture windows painted to read “Ladies Invited.”

Photo: Chris Granger

Thomas Tommaseo, Leonarda Gioe, and Tommy Tommaseo.

The restaurant is easy to find. Just look for the signs that mark truck turnoffs for the sugar refinery, and slow down when you see what looks like a supersized Erector set, flanked by skyscraper chimneys spitballing exhaust heavenward. That’s the ExxonMobil oil refinery, for which Rocky & Carlo’s, in business since 1965, serves as a sort of cafeteria.

True to that form, a steam table line hugs the back of the dining room. Come for Tuesday lunch and you’ll wait your turn with the Kiwanis Club. On Sundays, VFW Post 3706 members claim their tables by eleven, before post-mass Catholics from Our Lady of Prompt Succor throng the green-terrazzo-tiled room.

On any given day, you’ll meet some member of the Tommaseo and Gioe families. Born in Sicily, Rocky Tommaseo and Carlo Gioe were  friends who married each other’s sisters. Today, their descendants run the place.

If you’re lucky, Tammy Tommaseo, a bright-eyed twenty-something-year-old with a wild swoop of dreadlocked hair, will be working the bar. In addition to mixing a fine salad-style Bloody, jammed with a half bushel of pickled green beans, she’s a great menu tutor. Her skills are needed, for Rocky & Carlo’s digs deep into the Sicilian-American playbook. Among Tammy’s favorites are butter-bathed artichokes stuffed with garlic bread crumbs; monstrous fried onion rings, stacked to form an allium sculpture; and a stupefyingly good baked long macaroni, paved with cheddar and drenched in an honest brown gravy.

And then there’s the Wop Salad.

A slur, likely derived from the Neapolitan word guappo for a handsome or rakish man, the word wop has long been used in America, first by nativists who resented Italian immigrants and later by Italians themselves. From at least the 1930s onward, Italian restaurateurs in New Orleans have employed the term to describe a garlicky heap of iceberg lettuce, tossed with anchovies and olive salad (the same mixture of pickled vegetables that defines a muffuletta).

Today, Rocky & Carlo’s is one of the few restaurants to still use the term. Depending on your tolerance for retrograde indulgence, you’ll either take offense or ask for another serving of the Tommaseo-Gioe iteration. But no matter which way you swing, toward matters of etymology or gastronomy, a trip to Chalmette will prove integral to your culinary education.

Must Eats: Three more Italian-Southern stalwarts

Luigi’s, Augusta, GA
Greek-owned since 1949, and beloved for spaghetti with chicken livers and meat sauce.

Tomaro’s Bakery, Clarksburg, WV
Once popular with Italian mine workers, Tomaro’s is famous for its pepperoni rolls. 304-622-0691

The Venesian Inn, Tontitown, AR
Fried chicken and spaghetti is the classic combo at this 1947 vintage workhorse.